Contributions of Physics to Global Response to Climate Change

By Jona Cordonier Gehring

Many areas of science are integral to resolving our current climate crisis, and science will be even more crucial in the future. Engineers are starting to help us design more efficient and less polluting transport, biologists and agronomists will have to help us refine our agricultural systems, silviculturalists will help us protect and restore the forests, and chemists will have the important role of creating the technologies that will allow us to the manufacture goods we need while keeping to our carbon commitments. However, physicists are often left out of the equation. 

But the contributions of this area of science to helping us respond to climate change are immense and growing. First of all, many of the technologies we now use to combat climate change and reduce greenhouse gas emissions were made in physics labs. For example, the interactions between semiconductors that allow solar panels to function. Nuclear energy is another advancement in physics that may help us to change the energy resources we rely on, and while even fourth generation nuclear power isn’t a good solution until it can be made safely without hazardous waste, it is significantly better for our climate then the fossil fuel alternatives. 

However, the most important contributions of physics to addressing the global challenge of climate change isn’t one of these ideas. Rather, it is the fundamental, groundbreaking physics research that has allowed us to begin to understand the scale and scope of the problem itself, and the modelling that has allowed us to predict future climate change scenarios and to begin to uncover how we can prevent our own actions from rendering our future unsurvivable. 
Just this year the Nobel Prize in physics half was awarded to two scientists, Syukuro Manabe and Klaus Hasselmann, ‘for the physical modelling of Earth’s climate, quantifying variability and reliably predicting global warming.’ It is this modelling that has allowed us to have a much clearer understanding on the challenges we face. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), one of the most influential scientific institutions in the 21st century is focused on climate change and largely consists of physicists. But modelling is not the only major contribution that physics will make to solving the issue of climate change.

Nuclear fusion (or fusion power as it is generally known) is a technology that is theorized to produce energy by super heating usually isotopes of hydrogen, deuterium, and tritium (with 1 and 2 neutrons respectively), until they are in a hot enough plasma in order to have their nuclei fuse, releasing helium and producing electricity. The potential is fantastic. One glass of water (the main source of hydrogen through electrolysis) would produce the same amount of energy as burning an entire barrel of oil. Also, there are no harmful levels of radiation. Unfortunately, the technology is still under development as producing conditions similar to the core of the sun, on earth, for a long enough time frame to make it economically viable as a power source, remains a tricky challenge. Progress is being achieved faster then ever, with ground-breaking developments happening internationally, with many large companies and private investors providing funds for development. We could see nuclear fusion to be viable by the end of the decade.This will be too late to contribute significantly to the short-term mitigation plans. However, it will be a massive boon to the long-term solutions and the general future of the energy production.

In short, physics has had an immense impact on climate science, and it will continue to have an ever-increasing roll in this area and in our entire future.

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